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The Definitive Foreign Language Horror Films: 50-41

English language film has long been a place for some of the greatest horror film directors of all time. All the way back to Alfred Hitchcock, we have seen the genre grow and develop sub-genres, thanks to the public’s ongoing thirst for fear and the possibility of danger around every turn. But, for every Saw or Hostel or terrible remake of classic English-language horror films, there are inventive, terrifying films made somewhere else that inspire and even outdo many of our best Western world horror films. This list will count down the fifty definitive horror films with a main language that isn’t English; some may have some English-language parts in them, but they are, for the most part, foreign. Enlighten yourself. Broaden your horizons. People can get murdered and tortured in every language.

screenshot from Kuroneko50. Kuroneko (1968)
English Title: Black Cat
Directed by: Kaneto Shindo

Japanese for “Black Cat,” Kuroneko is set in a small village in medieval Japan, where a ghost is roaming the lands tearing out the throats of nomadic samurai. This comes after the destruction of a home in bamboo grove, where a woman named Yone (Nobuko Otowa) and her daughter-in-law Shige (Kiwako Taichi) live, left to die after they are raped and abused. They are, in fact, the ghosts who return, wreaking havoc as they enact revenge upon the soldiers of the land to make them pay for their deaths. In a twist of fate, the soldier sent to dispatch of the ghosts, Hachi (Nakamura Kichiemon II), is the son and husband of the women now raiding the countryside and taking vengeance. The film is quiet and eerie, with a chill that almost freezes the landscapes. Based on a Japanese supernatural folk story, Kuroneko is far from the graphic horror that has since overtaken the cinemas – a simple, haunting parable about loss and love.

screenshot from Night Watch49. Nochnoy Dozor (2004)
English Title: Night Watch
Directed by: Timur Bekmambetov

One half of a duology contrasting the day and night, Night Watch focuses on “Others,” a group of supernatural beings that live among humans in modern day Moscow. As we are told in the prologue, each “other” must align itself with either the forces of light or the forces of dark, since the two groups have a long running cease fire. The “others” that side with the dark roam the streets at night as vampires, while a collection of their opposition keeps an eye on them – the title “Night Watch.” Among them is Anton (Konstantin Khabenskiy), a man forced into service with the “others,” learning he is, in fact, an “other” himself, with the ability to see glimpses of the future. Eventually, he is called to protect a young boy named Yegor, who is being called by the darkness because of his gift. Much less a horror film than it is a thriller, this epic tale of good and evil teetering back and forth is a fascinating discussion about right and wrong and the inconsistencies between them. It tends to fall into some vampire movie cliches at times, but the complex conceit of the film is enough to make it an enjoyable, supernaturally creepy watch. Night watch, of course.

screenshot from All the Colors of the Dark48. Tutti i colori del buio (1972)
English Title: All the Colors of the Dark, Day of the Maniac, They’re Coming to Get You!
Directed by: Sergio Martino

It’s kind of like a mix between The Omen and The Brood, but nowhere near as sharp and clearly diagrammed. All the Colors of the Dark is an Italian horror film centered around Jane (Edwige Fenech), a normal woman living in London with her boyfriend. She is constantly plagued by nightmares (not so normal). Her mother was murdered when she was five (even less normal). She has lost a baby in a car accident (this woman can’t catch a break). Her boyfriend Richard (George Hilton) suggests that she start taking vitamins. Her sister wants her to go to therapy. Then, Jane meets a neighbor who suggests she participates in a Black Mass, where her fear will disappear (because that’s what you do – trust a stranger over your boyfriend and sister). But, after attending the ceremony, she finds her fears becoming all the more real. This movie is crazy. Fenech spends a good portion of the film in a stupor or completely nude and, while the concept of a devil worshiping cult could present interesting returns, it ends up dragging a bit. Regardless, the insane nature of this movie is a good example of the Italian horror film genre when things aren’t entirely fleshed out, so to speak. It’s still a fun watch.

screenshot from Twitch of the Death Nerve47. Reazione a catena (1971)
English Title: A Bay of Blood, Twitch of the Death Nerve, Blood Bath
Directed by: Mario Bava

The first Mario Bava film on the list, but certainly not the last. The story begins with a wheelchair-bound heiress murdered by her husband, as he wants to inherit her fortune. He is then mysteriously murdered. Then, other family members decide the inheritance should be theirs, so they start killing each other, too. It all gets more cloudy when a group of teenagers camping out on the property also get involved. With help from a team of writers, Bava creates a graphic killing spree, aided by special effects artist Carlo Rambaldi. Bava’s films are typically violent, but this one gets the award for the most intense and multi-faceted, as we see murder after murder without any respite in the plot at all. The 1970’s were the birth of the slasher film, with movies like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre hitting theaters, but there’s no denying the influence Mario Bava had on the genre, specifically this crazy hack-a-thon that has one of the greatest and simultaneously most disturbing endings on the list. Side note: Twitch of the Death Nerve is possibly the greatest English-language title of a foreign horror film ever.

screenshot from Three...Extremes46. Saam gaang yi (2004)
English Title: Three…Extremes
Directed by: Fruit Chan, Park Chan-wook, Takashi Miike

Put three of the most talented horror/thriller directors from East Asia together and you’re bound to have something interesting. The anthology film Three…Extremes is a collection of three short films, each directed by a master filmmaker. The first, Dumplings, is a Hong Kong film from Fruit Chan about an aging actress who begins to eat dumplings to reclaim her youth that turn out to have secret ingredients in them. The second is Cut, from Park Chan-wook, a South Korean short about a movie extra that kidnaps the director, only to torture him while holding his wife hostage. The final installment is a Japanese film titled Box, about a woman with recurring nightmares about being buried in a box, only to find they may be a vision of a distorted reality. As we move along the list, we’ll see other anthology films. But this one is a fascinating collaboration between three connected, but not necessarily collaborative directors from three separate nations. Dumplings was extracted from the group and made into a feature film, only to be released into British theaters, but the conceit of all three disconnected topics provides the right dose of paranoia and creepiness that you may not want to see anymore running time from any of the shorts.

screenshot from Thirst45. Bakjwi (2009)
English Title: Thirst
Directed by: Park Chan-wook

He had a segment in Three…Extremes, but he is more skilled as a full length director, especially in the thriller/horror genre. The man who gave the world the widely celebrated vengeance trilogy (specifically the original Oldboy) also directed this smaller vampire film that offers a deeper theme focusing on religion and the struggle with faith. Thirst is loosely based on Émile Zola’s novel Thérèse Raquin, centering on a priest in love with his friend’s wife who, through a bizarre medical experiment, becomes a vampire. Beyond just a vampire horror film, Thirst comes layered with themes about faith and the difficulty of maintaining one’s devotion in the face of hardship, in addition to an honest love triangle that feels more realistic and understated than most horror films make room for. The film won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2009 (not something horror films are known for), as well as boasting the first time a mainstream (key word) Korean feature film has included full frontal male nudity. In an era ripe with vampires that glitter, vampires that fight other vampires, and so on and so forth, Thirst was a different take on the genre that, for the most part, works.

screenshot from Demons44. Dèmoni (1985)
English Title: Demons
Directed by: Lamberto Bava

Give him credit for trying to step out of his father’s shadow; didn’t hurt that his producer/co-writer was horror master Dario Argento. Lamberto Bava had made films before and has made films since and, while none of them (including this one) are great, Demons is his most recognizable film. An odd Italian film that also includes English, is set Berlin, and features a largely English-language rock soundtrack (Billy Idol, Mötley Crüe, Rick Springfield), Demons centers on a student who is lured to a movie theater to watch a disturbing horror film with a bevy of other people, including prostitutes, a blind man, and couples of varying ages. After one of the prostitutes cuts her face, she transforms in a bloodthirsty demon who attacks her friends, which leads to them attacking others, and so on. It might be reaching for a “danger of the media” metaphor and, while Demons isn’t entirely successful, it’s claustrophobic take on the genre is an original play made by some interesting icons in the industry. Besides, a lot of the props in that theater are pretty crazy.

screenshot from We Are What We Are43. Somos lo que hay (2010)
English Title: We Are What We Are
Directed by: Jorge Michel Grau

A theme not often found in English language horror films (at least, not successfully) is the concept of lifestyle creating horror out of everyday activities. In other words, a set of people don’t think what they are doing is abnormal, but society has real issues with it (think Dogtooth, but more horror-leaning). Such is the case with the Mexican horror film We Are What We Are, where a family is left without a father after his unexpected death and has to begin fending for themselves. Most importantly, that means carrying out an important tradition for the family: cannibalism. The ritualistic practices behind the cannibalism are not merely to find, kill, and feed. There is a process to maintain; quality control, if you will. Some family members feel prostitutes are off limits. Others have problems with eating gay people. You know, regular family squabbles. It’s part horror film, part detective thriller, but it manages to take a common theme and turn it into something a little creepier, if only by applying it to family tradition. Sometimes, the horror is not in the act; it’s the reasoning behind the act. Parents pass on hobbies and tastes to their kids all the time – why not eating people?

screenshot from Them42. Ils (2006)
English Title: Them
Directed by: David Moreau, Xavier Palud

Ils is a French-Romanian collaboration that claims it is “based on real events.” Clémentine (Olivia Bonamy) and Lucas (Michaël Cohen) live in the countryside, far from the hustle of bustle of city life. One evening, the night after a car crash neither of them are aware of, they are visited by shadowy figures who seem bent on killing them. From there, it is 74 minutes of high level intensity, as we watch Clémentine and Lucas try desperately to escape a horrible fate, running through the woods, trying to get to safety. Two years later, director Bryan Bertino made The Strangers which, while eerily similar, is not technically a remake; it’s also nowhere near as intense and well-plotted. Moreau and Palud also wrote the film, focusing in on the constant fear of someone there in the dark, waiting for you, without any legitimate reason. There’s something to be said for a film that, while lacking backstory, can keep the dial of intensity up so high for the entire running time. The murderers in Ils certainly aren’t “typical,” but their motivation is nonetheless just as terrifying.

screenshot from The Skin I Live In41. La piel que habito (2011)
English Title: The Skin I Live In
Directed by: Pedro Almodóvar

There’s no real effort to induce screaming, but Pedro Almodóvar’s Spanish psychological thriller still veers enough into body horror and mystique that it falls into the horror category, but just barely. Based on Thierry Jonquet’s novella Mygale, The Skin I Live In stars Antonio Banderas (his first collaboration with Almodóvar for 21 years) as a plastic surgeon who has been working with a prosthetic skin that helps resist insect bites and burns. When he confesses that he has done experimentation on humans, he is banned from his ongoing research. From that point on, he holds a woman named Vera (Elena Anaya) captive with the help of his servant, but dismisses the rest of his employees after his research has been disallowed. From there, we learn the twists and turns of the doctor’s past – women he loved, men he killed, and, in particular, one incident that involved his daughter, an attacker, and the doctor’s warped journey for justice and punishment. After finding his daughter unconscious, he tracks down the man he feels is responsible and spends six years slowly transforming him into a woman to subject him to the pain of rape and abuse he feels has been put upon his daughter. It’s a dark, uncomfortable look at loneliness and sexual identity that veers around a few corners a little too sharply, but in the end explodes on screen in a way that most viewers aren’t prepared for.

–Joshua Gaul

#50-41 #40-31 #30-29 #20-11 #10-1

1 Comment
  1. Ben Howard says

    I love the 3 Extremes. I recommend seeing the extended version of “Dumplings.” It’s definitely a superior version with a lot more story, symbolism, and feminist themes.

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